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Pentagon launches invasion of privacy, Boy Scout says

by Margie Boule

Max Dennis is not anti-military. "He's always been all boy," says his mom, Diane Dennis. "When he was little he'd even make guns out of toast."

Max even wears a uniform; he's a Boy Scout. But when Max started to earn his citizenship in the nation merit badge last December, he learned some things about the Pentagon that make him upset. He uses terms like "invasion of privacy" and "profiling." And if he hadn't done some research and then written a letter to Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden, Max says, "I wouldn't have known about this. I would have had no clue."

Max, who just turned 16 and lives in Wilsonville, learned about a provision of the law, Section 9528, buried deep within the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act. It was added after lobbying by the Pentagon and requires secondary schools (defined variously in different states to include junior highs, high schools and colleges) to provide military recruiters with "directory information" about every student. That's more than just name, address and phone number. Recruiters also can be given date and place of birth, extracurricular activities and awards.

They could have called it the "No Child Left Alone" section.

Before the act passed, one-third of all school districts in the nation had policies against providing contact information to recruiters. After the act passed, any school that didn't cooperate would lose federal money.

The law included an opt-out feature. But it has been interpreted differently across the nation. Parents must be notified about the opt-out, but some schools bury it in registration forms, others put in inside student handbooks. Some schools have all-or-nothing opt-outs: If you want your information released to colleges, you have to agree to let the military have it, too.

All of this was upsetting to Max Dennis, who has a friend who's received many calls from military recruiters. "He's a freshman now, and military recruiters keep trying to get him to join. He tells them, 'I'm a freshman. I can't join yet and I'm not going to join.' They keep calling." Max says his friend is not listed in any phone or school directories, because his friend's father has a sensitive job. Max believes his friend's school gave the number to recruiters.

Because Max was upset about all this, and because he wanted that merit badge, Max wrote a letter outlining his concerns to Wyden. Two weeks ago Max got back a letter from the senator that made him even more upset.

Not only are recruiters getting information from schools, "the Pentagon has retained a private marketing firm to gather and analyze extensive personal information about high school students," Wyden wrote, "for the stated purpose of identifying potential military recruits.

"I share your strong concerns with the potential violations of privacy interests . . . as well as the potential for identity theft and other misuses of personal information."

Identity theft? Max and his mom, Diane, did more investigating and learned the information being collected by the private marketing firm, on behalf of the Pentagon (the program is called JAMRS -- Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies) can include credit card records, Social Security numbers, DMV records, e-mail addresses, grade point averages, ethnicity and the classes they take in school.

The information is purchased from all manner of firms, including some that process college scholarship and loan applications.

"I think it's horrible," Max says. "I started coming up to people in school," telling them about the database being formed with their personal information. He says, "They all hated that."

It's not about being for or against any war, Max says. "I'm not against the military one bit. I respect that they're fighting for our country."

But he doesn't respect the way the Pentagon is accumulating its database. "That's the really, really scary part for me. All of a sudden I realize there's someone watching over me and knowing just about everything about me."

Max says he believes it's unconstitutional. "It's against the Fourth Amendment," he says. And he may be right. That amendment protects "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects. . ."

It also may be in violation of the Privacy Act, although some believe that's why the military has contracted with an outside agency to collect the information.

Max has opted out of his school's requirement to give his info to recruiters. He's going to opt out of the JAMRS list, as soon as he and his mom can figure out how to do that. But Max knows it's too late for him. The government got his information before he found out about the opts-out.

"But everyone who's not in high school yet hasn't had it happen yet," Max says. He wants younger students, and their parents, to be aware they're about to be studied by the Pentagon, probably without their knowledge.

"I just don't find it fair," Max says.

Oh -- and he got his merit badge.


— Margie Boule
The Oregonian


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